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Areas of Fog
116pp. Shearsman Books. Paper. US $16. 9781848610521
The ‘minimal’ lyric tradition has been, particularly in America, one of Modernism’s more fruitful offspring throughout the twentieth century and now going into the twenty-first. Sparked off by the practice of poets like H.D., Williams Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound – and theorized initially by Pound as ‘Imagism’ – it has grown to a veritable inferno, featuring practitioners as varied as George Oppen, Lorine Niedecker, Charles Reznikoff, Robert Creeley, Larry Eigner and Cid Corman, down to contemporaries like Robert Grenier, Rae Armantrout, Ben Friedlander, Pam Rehm and Graham Foust (doubtless I am leaving out all too many worthy names here, and one could certainly throw in more mainstream figures like A. R. Ammons and current US poet laureate Kay Ryan too, for good measure). The example of Emily Dickinson looms large, as do Chinese and Japanese lyric traditions (again with Pound as primary catalyst in English), while European exemplars like Ungaretti, Jaccottet and Celan have shown that ‘minimal’ can indeed be diametrically and consistently opposed to ‘lightweight’. It may not be earth-shatteringly new, then (or even an example of ‘The New Sincerity’ or ‘The New Thing’ or whatever), but Joseph Massey’s Areas of Fog, his first full-length collection (after publishing a whole slew of impressive chapbooks since 2002), certainly gatecrashes a particularly long-running party with no little verve. . . .
Largely because of the memorable heft of Pound’s and Williams’ tenets – ‘Direct treatment of the thing’, ‘no ideas but in things’ – this tradition is too often seen as purely empirical, foregrounding direct translation of the world perceived into clear and communicable images. This isn’t untrue, but it implies something altogether too passive, as though a poem were ideally some decorative watercolour, to be glanced at approvingly now and again, but in no way troubling. It is more productive and realistic to see such poems instead as irresolvable collisions between keen observation and the actual materiality of words on paper, their very brevity tending to emphasise their self-conscious madeness as poems. One need only juxtapose three undisputed classics of the genre –
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough. (Pound, ‘In a Station of the Metro’)
Whirl up, sea—
Whirl your pointed pines.
Splash your great pines
On our rocks.
Hurl your green over us—
Cover us with your pools of fir. (H.D., ‘Oread’)
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
chickens (Williams, from Spring and All)
– to see the range of only-tangentially-mimetic textual play on offer: Pound’s rhythmical smarts, spreading four stresses over first 12 and then only 7 syllables to give the second line its cumulative punch; the stately repetitions (‘Whirl’/’whirl’, ‘pines’/’pines’), emphatic pronouns (4 appearances of ‘your’ in 6 lines, and 2 of ‘us’) and unforced enjambments in H.D.’s address to the sea naturalising her basically strange and counter-intuitive metaphor; and, biggest wink of all, Williams’ opening stanza showing the mind always already sifting, sorting and positioning. The full range of what this kind of poem can offer is perhaps better summarised in Zukofsky’s rethink of Pound’s dicta: ‘The test of poetry is the range of pleasure it affords as sight, sound and intellection’. Massey’s work certainly fits this bill, combining a vivid depiction of his immediate Californian surroundings with an uncanny microcosmic sense of vowel and consonant music. ‘Intellection’ serves to combine the two:
Boardwalk, Humboldt Bay
stiff in free fall—
toward the dredged
as the red-
trudging down 101.
Sound first. (‘Sight’ is certainly pleasured here, by the play between orderly 3-line stanzas and heavily enjambed syntax, and the elegant jump-cut that takes place between the end of stanza 2 and the start of stanza 3, but sound is resolutely king.) Note the patterns of near-rhyme (‘Pelican’, ‘then’, ‘brown’, ‘on’, ‘101’; ‘dredged’, ‘red’, ‘trudging’) and alliteration, working sometimes at a local (‘stiff in free fall’; ‘beak bent’, ‘bay’, ‘brown’) and sometimes at a ‘global’ (‘slack’, ‘stiff’, ‘surface’, ‘trunks’, ‘stacked’, ‘trucks’) level. Note the way each line keeps to 2, 3 or 4 syllables and 1 or 2 stresses until the longer last line takes 6 syllables and 4 stresses to underline the trucks’ mundane but defiantly ongoing journey. It’s a master-class in picking and choosing syllables – and clusters and lines of syllables – that sound good together.
What does this ‘symphony’ (literally: ‘sounding together’) mean? Well – and this is where the ‘intellection’ comes in – it is not primarily depiction that pleases (despite the added frisson of definite location – Boardwalk, Humboldt Bay – something that Massey is keen on, a promise of ‘real presence’ with its roots in Romanticism: ‘Composed A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting The Banks Of The Wye During A Tour, July 13, 1798’), but juxtaposition. The first stanza gives us a shift in the pelican’s whole physique as it spots something it wants, while the second gives us aim and destination and further physical reorientation to make that possible. Then, at the start of stanza 3, we suddenly get association, simile: the water of the ‘dredged / bay’s surface’ is as ‘brown’ as the redwood trunks on the flatbed trucks (Massey enjoys the paradoxical play on colours here, splitting ‘red- / wood’ over a line-break: how can brown also be red? a reddish brown? a brownish red?). Usually with figurative language it is relatively straightforward to separate vehicle and tenor, distinguish what is being described from the second thing brought in as a comparison to make the first thing easier to apprehend. Here, Massey gives the same space (literally: 6 lines and 2 stanzas apiece) to each side of his equation. Is the water the pelican dives to meant to suggest the redwood trunks, or are the redwood trucks introduced to clarify the brown colour of the water?
It isn’t easy to prioritise, and Massey wants it that way. The only order here seems to be that of perception itself: the pelican is seen preparing to dive and then diving, the water it is diving to summons up a memory of the trunks going down the highway. But even this is to impose a narrative frame that Massey nowhere makes explicit. The reader is left with an image in each hand, so to speak, wondering whether or not the two come together to maybe evoke Humboldt Bay in some cumulative way. Massey is not a fan of over-easy closure and resolution, preferring this kind of restless, shifting overlap. It is this unease that stops his art – which is indeed broadly descriptive – from being merely pictorial.
Implications, rather than statements, are what are on offer here. It is possible, for example, to compare the two tiny narratives in this poem as examples of exploitation: the bay has been ‘dredged’, the redwoods harvested and stacked, transported by gas-guzzling trucks down a highway imposed on the landscape. If this is the case, though, does our entry-point – the pelican – offer reinforcement (i.e. here, instead of man, is a natural predator still a healthy part of its wider ecosystem) or complication (i.e. here is just another exploiter, making the best of an altered situation to ensure its own survival)? Again, Massey refrains from explicit, or even implied, judgement; that work is left to the reader, if they need it. To this English reader at least this meld of this form and this content seems, probably stupidly, impossibly and excitingly American.
One possible objection to a ‘minimal’ approach, seemingly echoed by the equally tenacious Modernist tradition of the ‘longpoem’ (© Ron Silliman), is that such lyrics are too neat in the way they parcel up reality into bite-sized chunks, even that their very form makes them party to a capitalism culture of easy consumption. In today’s ADD-afflicted media environment this might seem truer than ever, but the actual experience of reading Areas of Fog belies it. These are not poems that satisfy once so the reader can move on quickly to the next: they are hunger-inducing but not hunger-fulfilling. It makes re-reading a necessity, new nuances becoming available with every new strafe.
As ‘Boardwalk, Humboldt Bay’ shows, Massey laces his poems not only with superb, pleasurable music and pinpoint-accurate observational details (ably fulfilling Wallace Stevens’ oft-overlooked dictum ‘It Must Give Pleasure’), but with shards of subtle paradox and disjunction. It is the latter that make this poetry hard to ‘digest’, that keeps the reader coming back for repeated confrontations and engagements. A further example:
a wet receipt.
The reader is likely to be charmed by the prominent ‘w’ alliteration and the play of ‘t’ and ‘d’ sounds, and delighted by visualising what is, at first glance, an entirely literal scene: a spider’s web seen after what may have been a storm, damaged by the wind and now complete with bedraggled receipt presumably blown there by the wind. Later reflection, however, may latch onto the inferences suggested by this poetic snapshot, the juxtaposition of the natural and the manmade, foregrounding both similarities (evidence of both spider and humanity as ‘consumers’) and differences (the web as prerequisite for snaring food and therefore vital to the spider’s existence contrasted with the throwaway receipt – a by-product – which merely records a transaction). A more metaphysical interpretation presents itself also, with the ‘receipt’ shifting from a literal presence to something more spectral: the web not only wind-damaged, but also – in some bizarre ironic retribution – presented with the bill for its deterioration too, ‘paying’ twice.
Such an interpretation of course requires personification, the importing of a human system of meanings and virtues into a nature where it is nowhere implicit. Massey delights in showing us, in showing up, these moments of human overreach, of readerly imposition, at the same time as intimating that they are inevitable. This is why the book’s title is so astute. As well as being another specific nod to the locale that has generated these poems, it seems allegorical: do these poems represent the clarity between areas of fog, where things can suddenly be seen again; or are they the areas of fog themselves, moments of confusion that force us to renegotiate our relationship with what’s around us? Massey, typically, doesn’t tell.
Despite the overall consistencies of tone and approach throughout Areas of Fog, there are subtle differences between its five sections. The first section, ‘Within Hours’, has more seemingly-autobiographical-but-still-largely-unspecific flashes – ‘a neighbor’s / voice’, ‘A memory of a face / I remember forgetting’, ‘Sober for once, for what’, ‘We / pull over / to argue, not / to talk’ – while the poems of the third section, ‘Property Line’ are more impersonal, grounded, haiku-like. The two final sections, ‘Out of Light’ and ‘On a False Spring’, have a more generalising, abstracting, philosophical bent, often musing on the frustrations and highlights of language and poetry-making itself. Take ‘Page’:
that won’t say
what we cannot,
In each of these cases, the single epigraph is a bit of a giveaway: Eigner and Armantrout for the more ‘specific’ sections, Bronk and Stevens for the more ruminative ones.
Most curious of all is the second section, ‘Bramble’, first published as a chapbook by Hot Whiskey Press in 2005. This has a formal constraint: all of its poems are ‘lunes’, a verse form similar to the haiku, created by Robert Kelly (who also provides the epigraph). Lunes, like haiku, have three lines, but where the standard haiku syllable count per line is 5, 7, 5, a lune’s is 5, 3, 5 – it zigs where a haiku zags. The effect is of a greater immediacy of communicated thought, the 3-syllable middle line acting more usually as a kind of bridge or hinge rather than as the ‘meat’ of the poem. Massey shows himself a master of this novel form, and ‘Bramble’ contains in miniature most of the themes and concerns of the whole book. Some are technical, ars poetica:
when you say it, say
it - what's there
to be said - what’s here
the weather's phrasing
Some are wry:
lies on the
a snail’s vacated
shell lies next
to a wad of gum
Others simply evocative:
crescent moon cuts low
black — scent of wet grass
pulp mill steam plume falls
dusk, the stretched red clouds
Music is, as ever, a constant: ‘pulp mill steam plume falls’, simply as a modulation of sound over a line, pleases me as much as (to pick a touchstone at random) Zukofsky’s ‘sorrow of harness pulses pent’. As the title ‘Bramble’ suggests, each of Massey’s lunes gives the consciousness a brief, gentle, useful stab.
Areas of Fog is a big (127 separate poems) grouping of small things (longest poem: 35 lines). It is impressively ‘complete’ and encompassing for a first book, which raises the question of where Massey will go next. Will he retain the geographically specific bent and dig deeper? Will he turn to bigger canvases or simply intensify his current approach? The presentation of this book – the contents page lists only the five section titles, most carried over from earlier chapbook appearances – suggests he definitely sees his work in constellations if not actual sequences, so it could go either way. The precedents mentioned earlier suggest either option: many (Pound, H.D., Williams, Oppen, Reznikoff and Niedecker) moved on to larger forms or alternated, while others (Creeley, Eigner, Armantrout, Grenier, Friedlander) chose or choose to perfect and hone their more focussed technique. It should be exciting, whatever happens. Dangerous word to throw around, I know, but more than a few of the poems in Areas of Fog strike me as perfect:
an open vowel
in the rain’s
Rob Stanton lives, teaches and writes in Savannah, Georgia, accompanied by wife and an ever-growing coterie of cats. His poetry and prose have appeared in various places, including Jacket 25, 31, 33 and 37.